After college, my main goal was to dedicate a year of my life to giving back to others. There were many different programs that were available to me, but the one that sounded like the perfect fit at that point in my life was AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps. So, I applied and went through the interview/ application process and eagerly awaited that phone call and email, offering me a position. Finally, not to soon after graduating from college, I was on a plane heading for Sacramento, California, to serve as a Team Leader (Class 23A) for AmeriCorps NCCC Pacific Region, for the next 11 months.
For those of you who have never heard of AmeriCorps NCCC here is as much of the elevator speech as I can remember… “AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps is a team-based, residential program for men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 to dedicate 10-11 months of their lives to national community service.”
As a team leader, I spent 1 month training, and the next 10 months leading a team of 18-24 year olds around the Western United States, serving different communities and organizations. I am going to be completely honest and tell you that this was the hardest, most stressful and most challenging year of my life. It was also one of the best. Overall, I was able to do so much good, learn new things about myself and the world around me, see so many places and have experiences that no one else can say they have had.
It feels impossible to truly explain everything I did and went through during my service year, and even more impossible for someone to understand unless they have been through the program as well. However, I am going to do my best to give you the rundown of my service year, in hopes that it helps prepare you for your time in AmeriCorps, or motivates someone to look into a service year of their own. I won’t be able to dive into everything, so I am going to do my best to give you an outline of the year, what we did, and where we went.
OUR SERVICE PROJECTS AND DESTINATIONS
Let me preface this by starting off with… my team and I were extremely lucky to be sent to serve in five different states, and visit two more along the way. Not every team gets to travel to this many states, and I know of many teams that only had one service project outside of California.
For our very first project we were sent to the heart of Los Angeles, California. We got to work in inner city schools as classroom assistants and after school tutors in three different schools. We spent six weeks getting to know the students and helping our sponsor, CFYC, with their mission.
In Los Angeles we lived in two small apartments on the south side. The neighborhood was not exactly safe, so we spent the nights inside. During that time, we had a very long list of things that went wrong with housing… from the bathroom flooding, things breaking, repairs being made that did not work, and more…it was a crazy ride.
During our free time, we took every opportunity to experience everything the city had to offer. And we pretty much hit everything you could possibly do.
After the holiday season we were sent to Jackson, Wyoming for 8 weeks, to build houses with Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton area. This was my favorite round for several reasons; I finally had a chance to work long term with Habitat, we were there for so long that we really got a chance to bond with the community and make a lasting impression, and I fell in love with Jackson Hole. It was also the most challenging round due to the freezing weather we were working in.
In Wyoming we lived on an absolutely beautiful Ranch with a split cabin for the girls and boys, laundry on site, a giant kitchen, a living room with fireplace and dining room. It was amazing. We also had some friendly/furry neighbors.
Of course, the weather did it’s best to mess with us and we had many snow days, avalanches that stopped us from getting back to our housing, and the entire team had their chance to slip and fall on the ice… We also spent most of the time working in the ice and snow, with temperatures ranging from -30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But we pushed through it.
For round 3 we spent the first few weeks on campus in Sacramento, CA, volunteering with the state parks and the American River Parkway. While here, we did a lot of trail maintenance, weed whacking, campground cleaning and poison oak removal. Our challenge during this round was working in over 100 degree Fahrenheit weather, and holding a vibrating weed whacker for 6-9 hours each day. But the trails were beautiful and the sunshine was a nice break from the cold of the previous round.
Living on campus while in Sacramento was easy (it’s much like living in a college dorm). The only problems we had was that the entire team got poison oak…twice, and it was all over our rooms, thus we had to do a few scrub-downs. On the bright side, our team was featured in many newspapers and we were interviewed by three different news stations.
For the rest of the round, we were sent to Salem, Oregon to work on the Marion-Polk Food Share’s Youth Farm. While on this project, we got to plant crops, build a green house, construct a shade structure, and work with the youth to teach them a bit about agriculture and healthy, sustainable living. The only downside to this project was that we were here for just under 3 weeks, and my team really wanted to work with our sponsor longer.
In Oregon we lived in one giant enclosure owned by the Boy Scouts. The facility consisted of a large open space that we set up our cots in, and was accompanied by two bathrooms and a kitchen. The center was in the middle of the woods with no neighbors, and thus very beautiful. But it was also completely covered in ants…everywhere!!! We killed so many during that round that I still feel some remorse.
Our last round was also a split round. For the first half we worked with Camp Sacramento in Blue Hills, California (right around the corner from Lake Tahoe). Here, we helped get the camp ready to open for the summer.
Then we made our way up north, to work on the boarder of Idaho and Washington. Here we worked in both states (mainly in Moscow, Idaho and Pullman, Washington) with the Palouse Clearwater Environmental Center. We planted trees and various native plants, had a bit of invasive species removal, built a plant nursery, worked with the youth, and got a chance to do some trail maintenance under the giant cedar trees.
In Idaho/Washington we lived in the organizations second nature center. It was an old house with lots of secret passageways and it was beautiful. Our only struggle with that was that there we SO many long gravel roads that the ride to and from work/town was crazy bumpy. It was also really cool having to cross the state line to get to work every day.
My team was very lucky to go to so many places and work with so many amazing non-profits and organizations. Each and every one of our sponsors were extremely welcoming and they continue to do so much good. I hope that each of their organizations is thriving, and that one day I will get a chance to visit them again.
MY FAVORITE INDEPENDENT SERVICE PROJECTS
While in AmeriCorps, corps members are required to complete a specific number of service hours that must be done with other organizations, other than their main sponsoring organization. In each location we were at, we reached out to the community to find other non-profits that we could work with/help. My team was amazing when it came to outside volunteer hours and we did SO many.
Here are just a few of my favorites…
The Pedigree Dog Sled Races, The Turkey Trot, Farm-to-Fork’s Dinner on the Bridge, The Los Angeles Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity’s Los Angeles Veterans Day Build, The Sacramento Zoo… there are many more….
10 MONTHS ON THE ROAD
Yes, you are basically a nomad for 10 months. You ride around in giant 15-passenger van that you get to name (we named ours “The Friz” as a nod to The Magic School Busses’ Miss Frizzle) and it takes you everywhere. It is how you get around to all your projects, how you complete your grocery shopping, and whatever else you need to do/ wherever else you need to go. Mostly it stuffed to the brim with everyone’s belongings, especially when you pack up to head to your service projects.
We had a few projects that were too far away, so I got to book hotels for the team and we had some overnights along the way. (There are rules on how far/how long you can drive each day. If your route is longer than that, your team must stay in hotels along the route.)
While on the road, we got to see most of California, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, and bits of Utah. From the California Redwoods, the Utah Bonneville Salt Flats, up and down the west coast, all the way to the Nevada dessert, and so many different cities and towns, we were extremely lucky for how much we got to travel.
As you saw in all our crazy housing/living situations, we live pretty simply and in random places. We have to be ready to pack up in a moments notice in case we get called for a natural disaster. We have many different “homes” through the year.
We are able to bring our sleeping bags that are issued to us, all the other gear issued to us, one personal backpack and our “Red Bags” that are issued to us as well (filled with whatever else we can fit).
The rest of our stuff gets thrown inside our “green bags” and locked in a storage unit (aka: the connex). We have access to them during our transitions, which is the one week we have between each service project where we return to campus to close out our past projects and prepare for the new one.
I previously mentioned that you do pretty much everything together everything together… for some people on your team, this means a lot of “firsts”. Their first time doing laundry, having roommates, cooking for other people (especially 10 other people), budgeting, ect… It can be fun and crazy.
You may need to do laundry together, and you will definitely be doing grocery shopping and cooking together. On our team we had a cooking schedule, and two people would team up to shop for, prepare and cook their meal for the team. Sometimes we saved enough money on our team budget to go out to dinner, or our sponsors treated us.
As most time off is spent as a group- especially if you are in the middle of nowhere, you can expect some pretty insane nights. We had the best movie nights, game nights, team adventures and random spa nights as a group. Planned, or unplanned, it was always a good time.
SOME TEAM STRUGGLES
Every team will have struggles. Depending on what campus you serve at, will determine how your teams are split up. In the Pacific region, you do not swap teams each round, but you stay with the same people for the entire year. Thus you are living, working, grocery shopping, driving with, having days off with, having trainings with, eating your meals with, doing laundry with…basically everything you do, you do with your team… for 10 months straight.
Spending that much time with the same people can get frustrating sometimes. Especially since everyone is from different places, backgrounds and ages and has different morals and life experiences. This is not a bad thing, it just means there will be times you disagree, wont get along or will need to take breaks from each other.
Our team had its ups and downs, but at the end of the day we really were a family. We started off the year with 10 Corps Members, and ended it with 6. We had some come and some go. We had people switch teams, join our team, decide this life was not for them, and some leave for personal reasons.
I still keep in touch with some of the people on my team and I hope everyone is doing great things. I really did learn something from every one of my team members and I am glad we all were able to spend the year together and get so much done for the communities around America.
TO WRAP IT UP
To be honest, if I gave you all the details about my service year, I could probably write a novel as long as the seventh Harry Potter book. This post barley scrapes the surface and is just the bare details. Overall it was most definitely the hardest year of my life, but also the most rewarding. I would not go back and change it. My only regret is that I did not decide to do another year of service. But who knows, I have time and things could change.
If you are thinking about doing a service year, just do it. If you are getting ready to starts yours, you are in for a life changing experience. And, if you are currently in your year of service, then thank you for all you are doing, keep your chin up and remember why you are there in the first place, along with all the good you are doing.
Of course, if you were apart of my team, Gold 7, or apart of our amazing group of Team Leaders, then thanks for a killer year guys. It was one I will never forget.